Bright, Catchy, Eclectic Newgrass Instrumentals from Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers

by delarue

Mandolinist Vivian Li‘s newgrass band call themselves the Pickled Campers. They’ve got a delightfully springlike, intriguingly eclectic new instrumental album, Growing in the Cracks streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show on August 16 at 8:30 PM at GSI Studios, 150 W. 28th St. Does this band like to get pickled? And go camping? Maybe both at once? As it turns out, yes! Their sound is a lot tighter and more eclectic than that might suggest: imagine Nickel Creek with a chamber jazz edge, sans the indie affectations, and you’re on the right track. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist Zach Brock, a brilliant jazz bandleader in his own right, with a great new album of his own just out. Flutist Darren Ziller adds more unexpectedly acerbic textures alongside guitarist Ross Martin, horn player Chris Komer and bassist Todd Grunder.

Throughout the album, the playing is tasteful and elegant to the nth degree. The opening track sways along brightly through some uneasy changes, with edgy solos from violin and flute before Li’s mandolin takes it in a sunnier direction. Moses (Free) pairs exploratory mando against washes of violin and flute before the bass brings it together as a pensive waltz; it’s a shadowy, cinematic, intriguing newgrass/jazz hybrid. Brock and Li team up for some gently bouncy riffs to open Grit, then the guitar and flute take elegant solos before Brock turns up the heat.

Likewise, The Next Tune – that’s the title – coalesces into a waltz and then a stroll with more than a hint of Romany jazz, a thoughtful horn solo grounding Brock’s lithe, dancing lines. Lasagna Sky – a trippy sunset image, maybe? – leaps right into a graceful, blues-infused Stephane Grappelli-esque sway, with precise, articulate solos around the horn.

Moth in a Dustpan opens with a sardonic sense of abandonment channeled by a flute/horn duet before the bass and guitar kick off a brisk strut for Brock and Li to dance over; then the band indulge themselves with a droll improvisational interlude. Trickster juxtaposes a trickily kinetic jazz violin theme with indie classical harmonies, sprightly flute, terse horn and guitar, Li capping it off with a warmly incisive crescendo. The album ends up with the jauntily syncopated Golden Apple, the album’s most trad number. None of this music is particularly dark but it has plenty of wit and it’s absolutely unique: there’s no other band that sounds like Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers. Highly recommended for bluegrass and jazz and even classical people.